The Devil You Know
First Appeared in The Music Box, August 2006, Volume 13, #8
Written by John Metzger
Fri August 4, 2006, 12:00 AM GMT
The utilization of music to further public discourse on political and social issues is certainly nothing new, though this year, it has reached a fevered pitch not seen since the days when Vietnam dominated the news. Lately, it seems as if everyone ó from Neil Young to the Dixie Chicks and from T Bone Burnett to Bruce Cockburn ó is sounding off on the new world order, and of course, they have. On his seventh studio outing The Devil You Know, cult favorite Todd Snider tosses his hat into the ring, too, and although the path that he follows is a bit less direct, his lyrics offer an equally strong indictment of the collapse of the American dream.
After his struggles with addiction combined with the death of a close friend forced him to face his own mortality, Snider, who previously was best known for his satirical sense of humor, reinvented himself while crafting his breakthrough endeavor East Nashville Skyline. Although he hasnít lost his knack for witty banter, he has de-emphasized its place within his work. As a result, The Devil You Know extends the growth and maturity that he demonstrated on East Nashville Skyline by further refining his ability to observe from within, and rather than relay his tales from the vantage point of an outsider, he places himself inside the hearts and minds of his subjects. On The Highland Street Incident, for example, he gives a voice to the two men who robbed him at gunpoint outside a Memphis bar, while Just Like Old Times is sung from the perspective of a drifter who briefly has reunited for a tryst with his high school girlfriend-turned-cheap-prostitute. Elsewhere, he assumes the role of an ex-con hanging drywall in order to contrast the priorities of the haves and have-nots, while on You Got Away with It (A Tale of Two Fraternity Brothers), he follows a pair of well-off college buddies as they recklessly spend their youth drinking, beating up hippies, and avoiding the police ó though the kicker is that one of them winds up in the Oval Office.
Musically, The Devil You Know is less adventurous, and Snider remains prone to wearing his influences on his sleeve. In essence, he guides his backing band ó which includes keyboard player David Zollo, guitarists Will Kimbrough and Tommy Womack, and pedal steel player Lloyd Green ó through the usual touchstones of Americana and classic rock. Subsequently, echoes of Jerry Lee Lewis (Tomorrow Never Comes), Bob Dylan (Happy New Year), Steve Earle (Looking for a Job), The Byrds (Just Like Old Times), and the Rolling Stones (Thin Wild Mercury) permeate the set. Even here, however, Snider finds subtly imaginative ways of deploying the sway that his heroes hold over him. He scores The Highland Street Incidentís violence, for example, with a volley of chaotic percussion, while You Got Away with It (A Tale of Two Fraternity Brothers) becomes increasingly boozy as it stumbles towards its inevitable conclusion. In the end, of course, it all comes back to Sniderís lyrics, and in using his arrangements to frame rather than to compete with his character sketches, he deftly gives The Devil You Knowís songs ample room to speak for themselves. Ĺ
Of Further Interest...
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2006 The Music Box